Tokyo Olympics: Calls for COVID-19 vaccine to be made compulsory for Kiwi athletes

  • 26/03/2021

By Stephen Hewson (RNZ)

The New Zealand Olympic Committee is being urged to make it compulsory for athletes going to the Tokyo Games to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Government is offering early access to vaccination to top athletes travelling overseas to represent New Zealand.

Dave Gerrard is an Emeritus Professor of Sports Medicine at Otago University and a member of international swimming's COVID-19 response group, and believes both the International Olympic Committee and the NZOC should be taking a stronger line over vaccinations.

While NZ athletes will be able to get priority for their jab, the IOC is refusing to make it compulsory for those heading to Tokyo.

Professor Gerrard says, when there will be 10,500 athletes from over 200 countries in a confined space like the athletes village, it makes sense to be vaccinated.

"I got out on a bit of limb here and say we should take a stand, and say to the athletes you need to be vaccinated or you are putting yourself and others at risk - and at risk of bringing CoCOVID vid back to your home country," he says.

Professor Gerrard says the medical staff for New Zealand's Olympic team have done a lot of work with athletes around the vaccine.

"Dr Bruce Hamilton, who is the medical lead for the New Zealand team, has done a huge amount of work in dispelling some of the myths and answering questions that athletes have posed about the safety of the vaccine, and whether it might affect an athlete in training. 

"The truth of the matter is that none of these things will impact upon an athlete's performance.

"There may be a little bit of muscle soreness around the injection site for a day or two, and maybe vague feelings of a flu-like illness, but they're nothing compared to the possibility of contracting COVID."

Professor Gerrard, who is also on the World Anti-Doping Agency's therapeutic exemption committee, maintains there is no danger of an athlete failing a drugs test because of the vaccination.

"There's nothing in a vaccine that is on the prohibited list and I can give reassurance to athletes that there is no way that they would return a false positive test because they have had the vaccine."

Despite Professor Gerrard's call to make vaccination compulsory, the NZOC is adamant it won't do so.

In a statement to RNZ, it says it will "strongly encourage" athletes to get vaccinated, as it will give them "peace of mind".

Canoe slalom competitor Luuka Jones could be heading to COVID-19 hotspots in Europe before the Games for World Cup events.

Jones says uncertainty around a third wave of COVID-19 hitting the likes of the Czech Republic and Germany have stopped her from travelling.

"We're really fortunate to be able to receive the vaccine before we go to Tokyo, because I know a lot of athletes from different countries won't be able to... so it's a huge weight off our minds that we are safeguarded," Jones says.

Para-swimmer Sophie Pascoe, who's won nine gold medals over the past three Paralympic Games, agrees.

"Definitely gives you a confidence boost knowing that you are going into a village with 10,000 people when [the virus] is spreading worldwide and we can't control... so the vaccine makes you feel like you have a little bit of certainty," Pascoe notes.

The Blackcaps will also get priority for vaccination for their trip to England in May to play England in a test series and then India in the final of the World Test Championship.

But veteran player Ross Taylor is undecided whether he will get vaccinated.

"It's a personal decision for everybody," Taylor says. "I think you have got to get all the facts first and foremost.

"I haven't discussed it with anyone... and I haven't come up with my decision yet."

Not getting vaccinated is too risky for sailing coach and former Olympian Jo Aleh, who will go to the Tokyo Olympics with her Nacra 17 sailors.

"It's likely that if someone tests positive, your team could be out and close contacts could be the entire team," says Aleh. "It's just such a risk, so anything we can do to look after the health of the athletes, the coaches, the support staff ,we will do."

About 500-600 athletes from a variety of sporting codes are expected to seek early vaccination, so they can compete overseas.